Of Patriarch and Poets:

Emily Dickinson, Jessica Powers and Genesis

Voicing Abraham


            A primary focus in teaching the Bible as Literature is to guide students to a recognition of the polyvocality of the text.  The Bible is not a single book; it is an anthology representing a variety of genre attempting to capture a range of voices and a range of human experiences with God.  Particularly for those students whose religious background has encouraged literalism and for those whose perspective on the Bible is that this book was written by one person under the immediate inspiration of God, an essential beginning comes in exploring this range of voices in the text.  From the beginning of Genesis with the study of the variant stories of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, it becomes apparent that in fact there are many "tellers of the tales."

            Ironically once one begins to acknowledge the Elohist, Yahwist (Jahwehist), Priestly and Deuteronomist accounts with the range of images, voices and portrayals in each, there is also the realization of silent spots.  These silent spots, these lacuna in the text, occur when no one voices the emotions or concerns of a human experiencing a test of faith.  Sarah at the time when Isaac is taken to be sacrificed, Jephthah's daughter on learning of her father's vow or Moses when he is denied entrance to land -- these are all humans who undoubtably are experiencing the paradoxical relationship of human with deity, yet the text does not verbalize the interiority of any of these people.

            Abraham, one of the major biblical figures, has two profound and complex encounters with God: his call at age 75 to leave Haran--the only land he has ever known, and his "test," the command of God that Abraham take Isaac, Abraham's only son, and sacrifice that son.  Lewis Smedes, one of the discussants in "Call and Promise" from Bill Moyer's Genesis: A Living Conversation series, identifies why humans so urgently explore Abraham's call and response: 

                        The point of the story [Abraham's call] is to have

                        this conversation.  It's in talking like this, in banging our

                        heads together, that we can find some moral ground.  This

                        terrible, difficult narrative is the perfect springboard for

                        groups to be able to learn what is important for them.  For

                        us Christians, Abraham is our father, not because he is a

                        good guy, but because he is the reminder that our relation-

                        ship with the Almighty is a relationship defined by grace.

                        What really matters is not whether Abraham is good or

                        bad or cowardly or heroic, but that God pursues His

                        design for the welfare of the human family with people

                        like that--in other words, people like us. (170)

            One way for "people like us" to hear Abraham's story arises from those who have probed these biblical texts and have sought out the voices that remained silent, thus imagining the words unspoken.  Paramount among those who have articulated silent spots in biblical texts is Milton, whose Paradise Lost  presents in thousands of lines the silent spots in the story of the fall of humankind.  Two poets, one well-known and anthologized, one contemporary and relatively unknown, offer voicings of Abraham in his two major encounters with God. 

            Emily Dickinson, though reclusive and private, gained literary recognition particularly because of the literary world of New England, still flourishing in late nineteenth century America.  Jessica Powers, in many respects a "literary daughter" of Dickinson, is a contemporary poet, virtually unknown.  Both women created hundreds of poems, emerging from their rootedness in nature, experiences of death and loss, and the quest for the spiritual.  Dickinson's route to contemplation, however, was marked by a tortuous wrestling with the fierce God of New England Puritanism while Powers's journeyed through the Irish, predominantly Catholic heritage of rural Wisconsin farming community to the literary world of New York in the l930's, eventually coming to a Carmelite Monastery where she spent the final 47 years of her life as a contemplative nun. 

            For Powers, one might expect a more "secure" faith and a somewhat limited appreciation of the challenges for the Abraham of Haran to become the biblical patriarch, exemplar of faith.  In fact, Powers' two Abraham poems articulate profound empathy with Abraham's struggles and urgent supplication for guidance from the human "father in faith."  Her poem, "Abraham," builds from the text of Genesis 12.1-4.

                        Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your father's

                        country and your kindred and your father's house to

                        to the land I will show you.  I will make of you a great

                        nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great,

                        so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who

                        bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and

                        in you all of the families of the earth shall be blessed.

                        So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went

                        with him.  Abram was seventy-five years old when

                        he departed from Haran.

Powers' speaker praises Abraham's faith and agonizes over the struggle to hear any call, much less respond.

                        I love Abraham, that old weather-beaten

                        unwavering nomad; when God called to him,

                        no tender hand wedged time into his stay.

                        His faith erupted him into a way

                        far-off and strange.  How many miles are there

                        from Ur to Haran?  Where does Canaan lie,

                        or slow mysterious Egypt sit and wait?

                        How could he think his ancient thigh would bear

                        nations, or how consent that Isaac die,

                        with never an outcry or an anguished prayer?

                        I think, alas, how I manipulate

                        dates and decisions, pull apart the dark,

                        dally with doubts here and with counsels there,

                        take out old maps and stare.

                        Was there a call at all, my fears remark.

                        I cry out: Abraham, old nomad you,

                        are you my father?  Come to me in pity.

                        Mine is a far and lonely journey too.

                                                (Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers 66)

The poet selects a powerful verb, "erupted" to express Abraham's response to that land "far-off and strange."  She also imagines that Abraham, at seventy-five and of a secure life amid kin and home, was not hesitant nor reluctant nor dependent on some "tender hand to wedge time into his stay" in the familar.  Powers' speaker can only stand in awe of the patriarch's repeated and consistent responses of faith, and plaintively seek Abraham's counsel in "pulling apart the dark" and in the "far and lonely journey."

            Students of the Bible as Literature are not so far removed from the experience of Jessica Powers that they cannot appreciate her articulation of admiration for one who moved so confidently from security to insecurity.  Using Powers' words to supplement the Word allows students to find some initial answer to questions about Abraham's fidelity.  There is little doubt though, that an even greater conundrum arises with the second of Abraham's calls.  As Bill Moyers expressed it in the conversation called "The Test,"

                        No story in Genesis asks harder questions.  Would God

                        make an unethical demand?  Should we consider pious or

                        crazy or both the father who puts a knife to the throat

                        of his son because he's heard the voice of God telling him

                        to do so?  And why would the mother who waited so long

                        and fought so fiercely for this child now fall silent as his

                        life is threatened?  Jews, Christians and Muslims wrestle

                        with these questions, because each of the great religions

                        finds revelation for itself in the story of Abraham and

                        the sacrifice. (219)

As Moyers' panel of theologians, artists and scholars struggled with this most incomprehensible story, so do students of the Bible.  Once again, maybe only through the voicing of the silent spots can readers find any revelation.  In an Emily Dickinson letter to Otis Lord of April 30, l882, she expresses a valid human response to the incomprehensibilities of the Divine.  Dickinson wrote, "On subjects of which we know nothing, or should I Beings--we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble" (Johnson 728).  Her poem, 1317, provides images of the God and the responder, Abraham.  In Dickinson's nimble movements from belief to disbelief, she challenges readers to navigate the maze.

                        Abraham to kill him

                        Was distinctly told--

                        Isaac was an Urchin--

                        Abraham was old--


                        Not a hesitation--

                        Abraham complied--

                        Flattered by Obeisance

                        Tyranny demurred--


                        Isaac--to his children

                        Lived to tell the tale--

                        Moral--with a Mastiff

                        Manners may prevail.

                        (The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson 571-2)

Dickinson's New England Puritanism images a God of relentless demand--Tyranny, the speaker names Him--and unflinching observation; God is a Mastiff, who can be cajoled by manners and obeisance.  Dickinson, like Powers in "Abraham," identifies Abraham's amazing faith which causes him to act without "a hesitation."  Unlike like Powers' voicing, Dickinson's portrayal is terse and tight.  The condensed wording and the economy achieved through the dashes highlight the silence from Sarah, Isaac, Abraham, and readers who articulate questions that remain unanswered.  Her word is "obeisance," emphasizing the subordinant stance of respectful submission.  Humans, on Dickinson's reading, can only appease this God-ruler with humble acquiesence. 

            In Jessica Powers' voicing of "Take Your Only Son" the speaker recognizes with greater poignancy, and again more words, that sometimes no angel comes.

                        None guessed our nearness to the land of vision,

                        not even our two companions to the mount.

                        That you bore wood and I, by grave decision,

                        fire and a sword, they judged of small account.


                        Speech might leap wide to what were best unspoken

                        and so we plodded, silent, through the dust.

                        I turned my gaze lest the heart be twice broken

                        when innocence looked up to smile its trust.


                        O love far deeper than a lone begotten,

                        how grievingly I let your words be lost

                        when a shy question guessed I had forgotten

                        a thing so vital as the holocaust.


                        Hope may shout promise of reward unending

                        and faith buy bells to ring its gladness thrice,

                        but these do not preclude earth's tragic ending

                        and the heart shattered in its sacrifice.


                        Not beside Abram does my story set me.

                        I built the altar, laid the wood for flame.

                        I stayed my sword as long as duty let me,

                        and then alas, alas, no angel came.

                                    (Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers 153)

While Dickinson's speaker conveys a satirical, almost pugilistic response that is tempered by the realist's recognition that no human can win against the God, particularly no proud, defiant human, Powers' speaker travels the taut pyschological struggle of Abraham.  Powers suggests that silence in the face of the incomprehensibility of God's request may have been Abraham's only recourse.  Dickinson spoke of Isaac as "an urchin," giving some indication of age, but signaling more about disposition.  Powers see Isaac as "innocence" looking up to "smile its trust."  How much more excruciating Powers portrays this three days' journey indicating the face averted from Isaac's innocent questioning. 

            The poems differ significantly in their conclusion.  Dickinson assures readers that "Isaac--to his children/Lived to tell the tale"; her choice of "tale" lightens the anguish and the distinct horror of some readers when they envision, as Moyers did, the knife of sacrifice slashing the throat of the son Sarah and Abraham waited nearly a century to conceive.  This son is likewise to be the ancestor of descendants numerous as the stars of heaven.  Dickinson's tone has remained deviant; Powers speaks of "the heart shattered in the sacrifice" and reveals a speaker wrought with doubts, making a slow trek toward the climax.  In the experience of her speaker, who cries out with the repeated "alas," sometimes there is nothing or no divine intervention to reward fidelity; sometimes, "no angel [comes]."

            Powers emphasizes the struggle with the words "we plodded, silent, through the dust."  Her portrayal of Abraham in this encounter does not show him erupting with faith.  There is also the line, "O love far deeper than a lone begotten,/how grievingly I let your words be lost."  Is God the love far deeper than a lone begotten?  Is the lone begotten, Isaac, the sole child of Abraham and Sarah?  Whose words are then lost?  Is Powers suggesting the silent spots in the Genesis account permit a far easier journey for Abraham?  Powers' states that "earth's tragic ending" is the heart shattered in sacrifice.  Those whose land of vision does not include the hope and promise of relationship with God might indeed express the futility of life in the double "alas." 

            The voicing of Abraham by Dickinson and Powers is but one example of the potential of readers doing close reading and listening to biblical texts.  Their articulations liberate readers, freeing readers to hear the words unspoken, to image the God undefinable, and to respond to the incomprehensible.