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« "In Defense of Babel" (by Lee Upton) | Main | "America's Busiest Poet" (by Sarah Fay) »

July 25, 2008


in one of the final scenes of "the godfather," the don is speaking with michael in a garden. the don seems to suddenly remember something minor task he wants michael to take care of and he asks about it. micheal says he's already thought about it and has handled it. a moment later the don dies. the don's whole project in the movie has been to bring michael "up to speed" as a mafioso. now that he knows he's gotten michael to that point, his work is done and he dies.

in a somewhat similar way the midrash describes ten tests that abraham had to face in order to fulfill his destiny as the patriarch of the jewish people. the binding of isaac was the last test. the whole story of abraham is basically the narrative of his coming to know "the mind of god" and to trust in god completely. by the time the binding incident occurs, abraham has reached the same point with respect to god that michael reached with the old don. abraham knows that he will not be called upon to kill isaac -- in fact, killing isaac is never mentioned in the text, which says, "make an offering," not kill. (it is also true that in some versions of the story isaac's soul does leave his body and then return.)

every detail of this story has been extensively and brilliantly interpreted over the centuries by the midrashic commentators. i am not an expert on it, but i do know that only a very superficial and uninformed reading sees it as a description of a bloodthirsty god and a crazily obedient old man. equally uninteresting is the secular humanist anthropological view about the rejection of moloch, of child sacrifice etc.

"the godfather" is a mirror image of the abraham story. the don is a sort of evil god who tests and trains michael. there's much, much more to be said about the binding incident -- but this is a great story and it deserves a careful reading.

Fascinating post (and comment). I agree it is most unfortunate that "the historical context [of the Abraham story]has been lost and [that] its moral progress has come to be seen as a near act of barbarity."

Genesis is politically incorrect these days, no doubt because of creationism versus Darwin, but in defense of God (!) it should be noted that the Lord was testing Abraham and that in Jewish studies the incident is referred to always as the "binding of Isaac" and never as a "sacrifice." (Human sacrifice is a New Testament variation on the theme.)The greatest commentary on Genesis 22 is Kierkegaard's amazing "Fear and Trembling," one of the great books of the 19th century, a real life-changer. Kafka has a mordant parable called "Abraham" -- a superb prose poem -- that is as much about Kierkegaard as about Genesis.
Thank you, Larry. I will want to post something tomorrow reflecting on "Highweay 61," which has always haunted me. The parallel I see with Owen's World War I poem comes down to one word much on everyone's mind in 1965 when Dylan's recording was issued: Vietnam.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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