Wilfred Owen was a British poet, born of Welsh descent in the late nineteenth century. He was best known in his young life for his poems about World War I.
He wrote most of his more than 80 poems in just slightly over one year, from August 1917 to September 1918, while on the front lines of that war. In November of that year he was killed in action in Northern France at the age of 25, just one week before the Armistice.
Owen experimented with a variety of images to convey the horrors of war, especially what transpired in the trenches of the First World War—let’s not forget that by the end of 1914, just five months into that war, more than four million men had already been killed or wounded in those trenches.
In one of his attempts to write about that war Owen turned to the harrowing story from Genesis about Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac, his beloved son (Gen. 22:1-14). Here is what Wilfred Owen wrote:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
To our horror, the poem’s ending differs from the biblical story; Isaac is not spared—the offspring of Europe are not spared.
Perhaps more horrifying still, and just like the biblical version, there was a way out. God provided an alternative path—as Owen described it, to sacrifice their pride—and that path was not taken.
Owen shocks his readers with the violent ending hoping they would be equally horrified by their own actions—or inaction concerning war. He was convinced that war subverts everything we hold dear as human beings: goodness, justice, empathy, and compassion. Owen subverts the ending of the biblical story to make his point about what war itself subverts and destroys.
The iconic story from Genesis appears repeatedly in Christian history. Most of the theologians writing in the first five centuries of Christian traditions, for example, chose to read this story from Genesis symbolically. Abraham and Isaac arrived to the place of sacrifice on the “third day”; this represents the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Or it refers to the day of resurrection after Christ has been sacrificed on the wood of the cross—the very wood Isaac himself carries, who is himself a symbol of Jesus, who carried his own cross to his death…and so on.
While I whole-heartedly endorse symbolic language in our faith traditions, I also worry sometimes that symbols themselves divert us from the actual story right in front of us.
Abraham was poised to kill his dear son, the one he thought would never be born, and the one through whom God had promised to bless the world—Abraham nearly killed him, but he did not, and God prevented it.
Right there is the key to this story, especially when we keep its ancient Mediterranean context in view. In many of those societies, child sacrifice was not uncommon as a way to secure the favor of the gods—whether for a good harvest, victory over enemies, or prosperity for your extended family.
This story, foundational to Israelite history, suggests that Israel’s God is not like all the others. Israel’s God wants violence to end, and provides an alternative.
That’s exactly why Abraham calls the mountain where this happened, “The Lord will provide,” or as I heard that phrase growing up, Jehovah jireh! That’s a rough, Anglicized vocalization of the Hebrew phrase in this story—the Lord will provide.
Notice the significance of that confidence in this story: even when your course of action seems wise, or prudent, even socially expected, perhaps the only one imaginable, God will nonetheless provide an alternative—and in this case, it saves Isaac’s life.
This story of Abraham embracing God’s alternative still matters, perhaps now more than ever, especially given Wilfred Owen’s brilliant and deeply troubling insight about the human condition: even when we believe God will provide—even when we see the alternative with our own eyes—we won’t take it; inevitably, we choose our own path, even when it’s violent.
Inevitably? Really? Oh, I really want to reject that, which is what worries nearly everyone who reads Owen’s poem. He doesn’t question whether God provides; he wonders whether we will ever take what God provides! Today that quandary applies no less compellingly or urgently in the war we are currently waging against the ecosystems that give us life.
Embedded in a resource-extracting, profiteering, consumerist economy of relentless commodification, Jehovah jireh! God provides a way out—why aren’t we taking it?
Factory farming is simply today’s default standard for our food supply—the daily, hourly torture of thousands of sentient, living beings—Jehovah jireh! God provides alternatives; why aren’t we embracing them?
Meanwhile, the world runs on the burning of fossil fuels—Jehovah jireh! God provides a host of alternatives; but we aren’t adopting them, even while we choke on the smoke of our own fires.
Yes, I know all those instances of “we” are problematic. So whom do I mean?
I mean “we” as individuals, and also “we” as members of Christian churches, and also we the citizens of the United States of America, and yes, We the People—not we the corporations, not we the CEOs, not we the political action committees, not we the lobbyists, but we the people, who once upon a time declared our independence from an empire for the sake, we said, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We European Americans declared that independence nearly 250 years ago, and as members of the Body of Christ today, we have something to say about that agenda: the life must be for all beings on this planet and not just some, and that liberty must include every demographic category we can possibly ever imagine, and happiness should never come at the cost of anyone else’s wellbeing—true delight is shared, not owned.
Perhaps as we celebrate Independence Day this week, we might notice that God provided an alternative to the way things had always been done back in the eighteenth century. Some courageous souls stepped up and followed it.
It’s time we stepped up again, especially as the Body of Christ in a world that is unraveling and in pain.
The way we have done things in the past will not serve us in the future, nor even now.
The God who provided an alternative to the sacrifice of Isaac continues to provide alternatives today, and also the courage and companions we need to follow those alternatives.
This week invites the perfect occasion for giving thanks for such a generous God—Jehovah jireh!—and then, for the love of everything good, and true, and beautiful, to live like we believe it.