December 17, 2017

A Poem on Abraham and Isaac (St. Ephraim the Syrian)


Among the many metrical texts in Greek attributed to Saint Ephraim the Syrian are a number of long poems devoted to Old Testament figures. The one presented here is particularly interesting since it is clearly related to a text of Saint Gregory of Nyssa On the Nature of the Son, which may be found in PG 46:565-576. It is very difficult to decide which text is the earlier and the few few scholars who have given any attention to the subject are divided. I am inclined to think that St Gregory’s text is the earlier, since it includes none of the passages in St Ephrem’s text which are explicitly Christological; for example the long typological series of stanzas (9 to 27) on the Incarnation, or that on Isaac and Christ (94 to 106). Whether the poem has links to the Syrian Ephraim is another very difficult question. The description of the tree on which the ram is found hanging as ’a Sabek plant’ must be based on the Septuagint, on the other hand the idea that the tree and the ram were a special miraculous creation is also found in St Ephraim’s own Syriac Commentary on Genesis, ’The ram had not been there, since Isaac asked about the lamb. The tree was not there, since the wood on Isaac’s shoulders shows it. The mountain threw up the tree, and the tree the ram; so that by the ram which was hanging from the tree and became a sacrifice for Abraham’s son, might be prefigured the one who hung like a ram from the wood, and who would taste death for the whole world’. [On Genesis, 20.1]

The description of the moment of the sacrifice, stanzas 133 to 139, is,as the writer says, based on actual depictions of the scene and is reminicscent of extant examples from early Christian art, among them a number of sarcophagi.

The poem is written in the Syrian metre, known as the ’Metre of Mar Epraim’, which consists of lines of fourteen syllables, with a caesura after the seventh. These are sometimes printed as couplets of seven syllable lines. This is unknown in Greek prosody and is based neither on length of syllabes, as in Classical Greek, nor on patterns of stress accents, as in Byzantine poetry, but simply on the number of syllables. Greek Ephraim also uses on occasion octosyllabic lines, made up of two tetrasyllables. In this poem they are used for Sara’s Lament in stanzas 76 to 92.

The text is translated from the critical edition by Mercati. I have, for the moment, accepted his division into four line stanzas, though involves accepting that there some lacunae in the original.

The whole of the Greek text is also found among the (inauthentic) sermons of St John Chrysostom.

Abraham and Isaac

1. God banished
the righteous Abraham
from his kinsfolk
and from all his own.

And he was in a foreign land
persevering under hardships
waiting for the hope
of the promise.

Much testing was brought
upon the patriarch,
through which his steadfastness
to God was shown.

A long time passed;
his youth like a flower
finally withered;
old age was at the door.

Nature suffering what
was its own
was bowed with old age.

By old age was quenched
for his wife also
the strength and capacity
for bearing a child.

Both their bodies
bowed under nature’s law
now that their youth
had been wasted away.

But the hope in God,
which flourished in them,
was not only unageing,
but also invincible.

Therefore beyond hope
she gave birth to Isaac,
who bore in every way
the type of the Master.

10. It was not nature’s work
that a dead womb conceived
and breasts that were dry
gave Isaac milk.

It was not nature’s work
that the Virgin Mary
conceived without a man
and without corruption gave birth
[to the Saviour of all things].

He made Sara
a mother in old age;
revealed Mary
a virgin after child-birth.

An Angel in the tent
said to the patriarch,
‘At this time
Sara will have a son.’

An Angel in Nazareth
said to Mary,
‘Behold, you will bear a son,
O highly favoured.’

Sara laughed
seeing her barrenness,
beholding her deadness
disbelieving the word.

‘How, she said, will this be,
Abraham and I
are both incapable
of having children?’

Mary too was at loss,
seeing her virginity
and keeping its seals

‘How will happen to me,
who do not know man?
For this promise
is foreign to nature.’

But it was he, who beyond hope
gave Isaac to Sara,
who was born from the Virgin
according to the flesh.

20. Filled with joy were
Sara and Abraham
when Isaac was born,
as God had said.

Filled with joy were
Mary and Joseph
when Jesus was born,
as Gabriel had said.

Abundantly there flowed
streams of milk
from the mother in old age
into the mouth of Isaac.

Abundantly the breasts
of the Virgin streamed with milk
for the One who nourishes
all the ends of the earth.

‘Who will tell Abraham
that Sara gives suck
to a son in her old age?’
cried the barren woman.

‘Who will tell mankind
that I am a virgin,
and having given birth I suckle?’
said Mary.

Sara did not laugh
because of Isaac,
but because of the One
who is born from Mary.

And just like John
through his leaping,
so Sara by laughing
revealed the joy.

The child grew to manhood
and was radiant and fair
with the bloom of youth
of young men.

Adding each day
virtues of soul
to the beauty of his body,
he was a delight to his parents.

30. You that have children,
imitate him.
How the father takes pleasure
when he sees his child playing.

How he rejoices when he sees
his child making progress,
or being serious
about his lessons.

But when Abraham, seeing
these things, rejoiced,
trial and heavy torment
were brought to him,

That he might show clearly
to what he gave greater weight,
to the influence of nature
or the love of God.

As I recount,
beloved brethren,
the severity of the test,
I tremble and am amazed.

For once again God
gives Abraham an order
and summons him,
calling him by name.

‘Take your only son,
your beloved,
whom you love,

And offer him
yourself as a sacrifice
on one of the mountains
that I shall tell you.’

But when he said to him,
‘Abraham, Abraham,’
gladly he obeyed,
expecting better things,

Ever awaiting
an additional grace,
either to arrange a marriage,
or to erect the marriage chamber,

40. So that to its fulfilment
might come the blessing
and the multitude of descendants,
as he had been promised.

But let us learn
the additional word to
‘Take your only,
your beloved son.’

You see how the sharp points
of the word pierce the father,
and how they rekindle
the flame of nature?

How they rouse the great love
of the father for his child,
calling him ‘Your only’
and also ‘Your beloved’?

So that through such
names his burning
love for him might test
his intention.

‘And offer him
to me as a whole burnt offering
on one of the mountains
that I shall show you.’

What have you suffered
as you heard these things?
Did you not stagger
at the telling,

You that are fathers
and have clearly learnt
the love for your sons
which comes from nature?

For you know, you know
how a father has received
the report of the slaughter
of any only son.

Who would not be amazed
at such a word?
Who would not at once
turn away his face?

50. who would not at once
at this command not choose
rather to die
than to accept the order?

Or who would not have
remonstrated with him,
putting nature forward
as his advocate like this?

‘Why, Master, have you ordered
these things to be?
Why have you uttered
these unwelcome words?

Was it for this you wished
to make me a father,
that you might all at once
make me a child murderer?

Was it for this you gave me
a taste of the sweet gift,
that you might show me to be
a byword to the whole world?

That with my own hands
I might slay my child
defiling my right hand
with the blood of my own kin?

Am I to become a child murderer?
Is this what you order,
and is it in such sacrifices
that you take you delight?

Do you command me to slay
my most dear son,
by whom I had hoped
with Sara to be buried?

Is this the sort of bridal chamber
I am to erect for him, tell me?
Is this the sort of joy
I am to prepare for his marriage?

Am I to light for him
not a bridegroom’s torch,
not lights of gladness,
but a funeral fire?

60. Shall I put a garland on him?
Shall I erect a bridal chamber?
Shall I besides
set up dances?

Shall I be, as you said,
father of the nations,
who am not worthy
even of my one child?’

But the just man did not give
any such answers

having become obedient,
he set love alight
more fiercely than the fire.

Sharper than the sword
he made his fond love;
for with it he cut
the bonds of nature.

Having left behind and discarded
like something earthly
the burden of his
compassionate nature,

He gave up his whole self
with fervour and busied
himself with the command
to slaughter his son.

But to his wife
he said nothing of this;
nor did he share it with her,
acting to the best advantage;

For he considered
that for him woman was
unworthy of credit and
prejudicial to counsel.

For he did not agree,
but disapproved
of Adam’s accepting
Eve’s counsel.

70. So, lest Sara suffer
some womanly emotion,
lest she grieve
like a mother,

And shake the intensity
and inviolability
of his love for God,
he strove to keep her unaware.

For what loud lamentations
would Sara not have used,
either to her child,
or to his father?

What would she have not done
as she saw her own son
being forcibly dragged
away to be slaughtered?

How would she not,
wrapping him in her arms,
clasping him tightly,
have pulled him close to her?

What words would have not
used to Abraham,
and with loud laments
cried out her distress?

The following stanzas, which form Sara’s Lament, are in Octosyllabics.

‘Spare, spare your own kind;
spare your child, Abraham,
spare him, do not become
an evil tale for the world.

This offspring is my only one;
this is my first;
first and last
in my labour pangs was Isaac.

Do not cut off the one grape cluster
that we bore as our fruit,
when through old age we were
no longer part of the vine.

Do not harvest the one ear of corn
[that we bore as our fruit]
with the trenchant sickle,
the one who blossomed from us,
from the deadness that was ours.

80. Do not smash the staff
on which we were supported.
Do not break the rod
on which we take our rest.

Do not blind the eye
which we two have gained.
Do not remove our memorial
from the earth beneath the sky.

Do not slaughter like a sheep
the lamb that we possess.
Do not take away our joy
and fill us with lament.

Whom, after him, shall we
see at out table?
Who will call me ‘Mother’?
Who will minister to our old age?

Who will shroud us when dead?
Who cover our bodies with a tomb?
Who preserve the memorial
of us for ever childless?

You see the young man’s beauty,
the flower of his youth,
on which, if you saw it in a foe,
you would surely have compassion.

He has been given as the fruit
of my yearlong prayers;
he has been left as the branch
of my succession.

He is all that is left of our line;
he the staff of old age;
he alone is the hope
of our lack of hope.

If you mean to thrust the sword
into the neck of my most dear son,
then kill me first,
so granting me the greatest grace.

Let the funeral mound be common,
and common our memorial.
Let a common dust
cover both our bodies.

90. Common be the death
of the barren and her offspring.
Let a common gravestone
tell the suffering of both.

Let not Sara’s eye see
Abraham a child murderer,
nor Isaac, slain as a child
by the hands of his father.’

Here the poet reverts to Heptasyllabics

These and things like them
Sara would have done
had she known that her dear son
was about to be slaughtered.

Therefore Abraham said
nothing of this to her,
that nothing might hinder
the work of his hands.

He laid on the boy
the faggots of the wood,
since the Saviour also
bore the Cross.

When Isaac was about
to go to the slaughter,
the ass followed
and Abraham’s servants.

And when Christ was about
to go to his Passion,
he mounted on a colt
showing the call of the nations.

While his disciples also
followed him,
bearing tokens of victory
and crying, ‘Hosanna!’

Isaac bearing
the wood went up
the mountain to be sacrificed
like an innocent lamb.

The Saviour too bearing
the Cross went out
to be sacrificed on Calvary
like a lamb for us.

100. As you look on the sword
think of the lance.
As you consider the altar,
imagine Calvary.

As you contemplate the faggots
reflect on the cross.
As you look on the fire,
meditate on the love.

Look too on the sheep
hanged by its two horns
on the plant
that is called ‘Sabek’.

Look too on Christ,
the Lamb of God,
hanged by his two hands
upon a Cross.

The plant called Sabek
means ‘forgiveness’,
for it saved from slaughter
the old man’s child,

It foreshadows the cross
that forgives the world
its sins
and grants it life.

The ram hanging
on the Sabek plant
mystically redeemed
Isaac alone,

While the Lamb of God
hanged on the cross
delivered the world
from Death and Hell.

Isaac was torn
from his servants
when about to go
up the mountain to death.

Christ was torn
from his disciples,
when about to go
to the slaughter for our sake.

110. The righteous Abraham
left the servants
lest there might be from them
some slave-like action
against the sacrifice.

And taking Isaac,
alone he led him up alone,
while they carried together
fire, sword and wood.

But what did Isaac
with his sweet voice
call out and say?
He addressed him, saying,

‘Tell me, father,’ he says,
‘See, here are the fire and the wood;
Where is the sheep
for the holocaust?’

Again the boy’s voice
pierces his father to the heart;
again another dread
trial held him.

Again another testing
seized the just man,
no feebler than the first
no more compassionate.

How could Abraham
not be smitten with tears,
who no longer expected
to hear the greeting, ‘Father’

No longer to hear
the voice of his dearest child?
He says nothing mournful,
utters nothing sorrowful,

But with unruffled soul
and unflinching thought
he accepted the sweet
words of the boy.

And he answered
and spoke with him,
‘God, my child, will provide
a sheep for the sacrifice.’

120. Abraham said this either
to encourage the boy,
or to prophecy
the future.

When he had reached with haste
the appointed place,
he builds the altar,
the place of sacrifice.

He prepares the knife
and gets ready the fire,
and the father places
the wood beside the boy.

After this the father
binds his son,
and nature does nothing
contrary to prevent him.

Isaac gave himself
to his father,
to use him
in whatever way he wished.

At whom should I marvel first,
at which be amazed?
What garland of praise
should I weave first?

That for the one who laid hands
on his most beloved son,
through his love
and goodwill towards God,

Or for the one who obeyed
his father unto death
and accepted from him
a heavenly slaughter?

For the former raised
himself above nature,
honouring God’s command
rather than nature’s;

While the latter obeyed
his father unto death,
knowing that to grieve his father
was worse than death.

130. Then Abraham took
the bound youth;
his hand did not grow numb,
he did not change his mind.

Whenever I have seen
the icons of this youth,
I have never been able
to pass them by without tears,

The powerful skill
bringing to my sight
a clear understanding
with this story.

Isaac was placed
near the altar,
crouched on his knees
before his father,

With his hands tied
behind him;
to his rear Abraham,
treading on his bent knee.

Then, with one hand
bending back towards himself
the young man’s hair,
he leans towards him.

And Isaac’s face
looks towards him,
gazing pitifully
and awaiting the blow.

With his right hand
armed with the sword,
he aims for the slaughter,
touches the body.

Already the knife’s point
was at his throat;
he pushed the sword
against his stomach.

And then there came
a voice from God,
restraining the assault,
preventing the deed,

140. ‘Abraham, Abraham’,
it says, ‘do not lay
your hand on Isaac,
nor do any evil to your son.

For now I know truly
that you fear God,
and for my sake did not spare
your beloved son.

See, a ram is bound
on the Sabek plant.
Take it and offer it
instead of Isaac,

That you may be fully assured
that I have accepted
your sacrifice,
your fervent choice.’

Angels marvelled with
Principalities and Powers,
Thrones Dominions
and all the angelic hosts.

The heavens were amazed
with sun and moon
and choirs of stars
at the wonder.

While God was pleased
by the single choice
of holy Abraham,
who had proved most faithful.

And he said to him, Blessing I will bless
and multiplying I will multiply
your descendants upon earth
like the stars of heaven,

Since you have eagerly
obeyed my voice
and hastened to fulfil
my commandment.’

And God gave
a sheep from the rock
instead of the child
to complete the sacrifice.

150. For God is not pleased
by a dead sacrifice
offered to him
through ash and smoke,

But a living sacrifice,
holy, well-pleasing,
the reasonable worship
he seeks from us,

As the Apostle
clearly exhorts us all,
knowing that this
is well-pleasing to God.

For God did not wish
to make Abraham
a child murderer
when he told him to offer his son,

But so that he might show all
the inhabitants of the world
that Abraham loved
God very greatly,

Because for his sake
he did not spare Isaac
although he was
his only child.

And so too God
revealed a mystery,
great and marvellous,
to his friend Abraham.

For through the sacrifice
he became a priest;
while by the type
he made him a prophet.

And God Most High
made known to him
that he too would
give his only Son

For the world’s sake,
so that God become man
might save the human
race from error.

160. For this he signified
in giving in place of Isaac
a sheep from the Sabek
to become the sacrifice.

For since disbelieving men
would not believe
in the child-bearing
of the Holy Virgin

– How could she have
without marriage to a man
given birth a son;
something truly impossible –

Therefore he brought
the ram from a rock
that by this means
the marvel might be assured,

Because everything
that is ordained
by the will of his divinity
is instantly realised.

So, as there the word
brought a sheep into being,
so in the Virgin
the Word became flesh.

And as the sheep
was bound to the plant,
so the Only-Begotten
was nailed to a Cross.

Therefore Isaias
cried out and said,
‘He was led like a sheep
silent to the slaughter.’

While again the Lord
said to the Jews,
‘Abraham desired
to see my day,

He both saw it and rejoiced,’
the day that is of the Passion
typified by Isaac
on the holy mountain.

170. Blessed is God
who foreshadowed for us
all our salvation
in the holy scriptures.

And he came and fulfilled
the words of the Prophets,
and ascended in glory
to his Father,

That in every place
we may worship the Father
with Son and Spirit
to the ages. Amen.


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