Poetica  Publishing  Company


The Sacrifice of Isaac
A poem series by Keith Tornheim


The sacrifice of Isaac is a well-known bible story—God’s command to Abraham to go to Mount Moriah and sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering; Abraham’s journey there with servants who were left at the bottom while Abraham and Isaac ascended the mountain; Abraham’s building an altar of stones, binding Isaac and placing him on the altar, taking out a knife to sacrifice him; and at the last minute a call from an angel not to harm his son, but instead take the ram that has been caught nearby in a thicket. The poems in this series give interpretations of the story from the standpoint of many of the characters—Abraham, Isaac, the ram, the angel, God, the servants, Isaac’s mother Sarah and his wife Rebekah, even the bush and the stones of the altar. 


Sample Poems

My Mother’s Persian Plate


I, her firstborn, am uneasy as the heir

of this testament of her certainty and faith:

a Persian plate embossed with the sacrifice of Isaac.

There stands Father Abraham with the knife

raised above Isaac his son,

whom he clasps against his chest.

He has paused his strike,

his eyes locked with those of the angel

who gestures at him with one outstretched arm

to halt the sacrificial blow

and with the other holds the replacement, the ram,

here forced forward to death,

not caught by nature or misjudgment in a thicket.


But what if Abraham had not seen the angel,

because his gaze was narrowed

for the last look at his living son,

nor heard the angel,

because of the crushing pulse in his ears,

the speeded beating of his own heart

echoing his son’s?

What if he, in grief, had plunged his arm down

to fulfill his pledge?

What then? Was the angel authorized

to act against the focused will of Abraham?

Or would God have simply said,

“You have done as I asked,”

and then gone back to his heavenly abode

to ponder anew the problem of free will

and the measure of a man?





And Sarah stomped out of the tent,

leaving Abraham and young Isaac, newly returned

from their remarkable outing on Mt. Moriah.


Sarah went in search of God.

“Where are You, Lord?

Come to me and explain.

They say we are all Your children,

that You created the whole world.

But you did it with a WORD!

I bore Isaac out of my pain and blood.

Who are You to ask—no, demand—

to put him under the knife,

to take his life?

No, just the threat, AS A TEST?!

What would a child think?

What scars will he have under his skin?

How long must I rock him in the night?

And then who will comfort me?”